When did your company last integrate a fire alarm system with another building-control or security system? Most electrical contractors would find it hard to answer that question. In fact, most would likely answer, “Never!” In the past, the fire alarm system industry has resisted integration with other protection or building-management systems. This resistance occurred because the fire alarm systems industry had regulation by codes and standards while the other systems did not have such constraints.

Typically, a fire alarm manufacturer submits a fire alarm control unit to a nationally recognized testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or FM Approvals for testing and to obtain a listing. The fire officials look for that listing as proof that the fire alarm control unit met minimum standards for use in a fire alarm system.

The manufacturer designed each fire alarm control unit to conform to the requirements of NFPA 72-2002, the National Fire Alarm Code and the testing laboratory standard at considerable cost. This cost would become the reason for not using the latest technology to develop new control units until the manufacturer had fully amortized the original control-unit design costs over the life of the control unit.

This process slows the manufacturers from developing new high-technology products that possess more features and provide for easy integration with other safety and control systems.

Most fire officials will not allow the integration of a fire alarm system with other systems, based on the concern that failure of the other systems would adversely affect the operation of the fire alarm system. In most cases, the fire official will allow the interfacing of a fire alarm system with other systems only if the methods used to create the interface will maintain the isolation of the interfaced system from the fire alarm system.

The policy of fire officials accepting a foreign system interfaced with the fire alarm system will often encourage a contractor to take that route rather than to continue searching for a fire alarm system that has a listing to permit seamless integration with other systems.

NFPA 72-2002 contains a permissive requirement that allows fire alarm systems to either integrate with other systems-combining all detection, notification and auxiliary functions in a single system-or become part of a combination of component subsystems. The code permits fire alarm system components to share control equipment or to operate as stand-alone subsystems.

The resulting fire alarm system must function as a single system. The code requires that all component subsystems have the capability of simultaneous, full-load operation without degradation of the required, overall system performance. Most nonfire systems will connect to a fire alarm system through the use of a circuit interface.

The code defines a circuit interface as: “A circuit component that interfaces initiating devices or control circuits, or both; notification appliances or circuits, or both; system control outputs; and other signaling line circuits to a signaling line circuit.”

Chapter 10 of NFPA 72-2002 requires that, “Interface equipment connections shall be tested by operating or simulating the equipment being supervised. Signals required to be transmitted shall be verified at the control panel. Test frequency for interface equipment shall be the same as the frequency required by the applicable NFPA standard(s)for the equipment being supervised.”

The kind of regulation shown in these examples from the code sheds some insight on why the industry has remained slow to integrate with other nonfire systems.

The market continues to change. Underwriters Laboratories promulgates UL 864, the standard for testing of all fire alarm control units. Compliance with this standard ensures each fire alarm system control unit will operate safely and as intended.

In order to comply with UL 864, manufacturers have to decide to either update all existing products or phase out control units too expensive to update. It appears that manufacturers will stop making most conventional fire alarm systems. Manufacturers will phase out the programmable control units that require too many upgrades to comply with the standard.

The rules regarding the integration of fire alarm systems with nonfire-related safety systems, such as Mass Notification Systems, will also change. The new edition of NFPA 72 comes up for a vote in June 2006 and will be available for use in September 2006. Those proposing the use of such systems will need to convince fire officials that the integration will not reduce the operational reliability of the fire alarm systems.

In my opinion, you will find the key to integrating other systems with fire alarm systems in the strict control over who has responsibility for the integration and operation of the installed systems. Only when they fully understand this fact will the fire authorities become more inclined to allow the integration of fire and non-fire control systems. EC

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.